I was sad to hear a mistrial declared in the case of Jonathan Ferrell whom Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer Randall Kerrick shot 10 times as Ferrell sought help following a car accident in 2013. The deadlocked jury after 4 days of deliberations sadly came as no surprise to me. And as a former prosecutor, I felt anger at the jury and a criminal justice system that often vindicates police killings of unarmed black men and boys.
A grand jury indicted Kerrick on voluntary manslaughter for which he stood trial. A civil suit resulted in a $2.25 million settlement. No dispute existed by prosecutors or the defense that Kerrick intended to shoot Ferrell and that Ferrell died as a result of the shooting. The issue remained whether Kerrick shot in self- defense or used excessive force as the prosecution argued.
The jury of eight men and four women consisted of 3 African Americans, 2 Latinos and 7 whites. The initial jury vote was 7-5 and the final vote was 8-4 for acquittal. The jury did not reveal the racial composition of the jury’s vote. I surmise that the breakdown likely appears along racial lines.
While some argue the jury did not decide the case based on race, I disagree. As a trial lawyer and former prosecutor, race plays a pivotal role in most cases where one party is white and another is black. It does not necessarily mean that a juror is overtly prejudiced for or against one party based on race. It does mean the lens through which jurors view the facts of a particular case is based on their own perceptions. And their perceptions are based on their race and life’s experiences. And the judge instructed jurors that they are not to disregard their common sense in weighing the evidence.
When many whites hear the testimony of a white police officer saying he feared for his life as Ferrell, a large former college football player, came towards him after being asked to stop three times, they see and likely empathize with Kerrick. Kerrick saw a large black man as a lethal threat and in a matter of seconds shot and killed him. He never identified himself as a police officer. Kerrick testified that he had no option but to shoot. He didn’t know if Ferrell had a gun. He continued to shoot Ferrell even after he fell to the ground.
And for many white jurors, their common sense which will be similar to that of Kerrick likely determines the outcome of their vote. And their lens may distort their vision from seeing any other view other than that of Kerrick. And they will likely find reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s assertion that Kerrick used excessive force and vote to acquit. For many African Americans, their views on police differ vastly from whites due to their experiences or those of family and friends. Many blacks understand that they could be Jonathan Ferrell.
The prosecution presented testimony to show inconsistencies in Kerrick’s testimony. They also introduced expert testimony supporting the use of excessive force by Kerrick. Presumably it was not enough to overcome the unconscious racial bias of the whites on the jury.
We must change the culture of police that sees unarmed blacks as a lethal threat whether playing in a playground like 12 year old Tamir Rice, driving a car like Samuel Dubose or seeking help following an accident like Jonathan Ferrell. Unless we require extensive and ongoing racial bias and sensitivity training in all police departments throughout the U.S., we will continue to see more unarmed Jonathan Ferrells shot and killed by police. And we will see jurors siding with the police to acquit them.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.